2016-06-30
The foremost memory of John Paul II will be for his heart. When I conjure up an image of the pope, it is invariably in connection with some gesture of warmth and loving kindness to a child, to a widow, to the poor. John Paul II's ministry was devoted principally to the suffering Third-World countries and his dedication to those in pain made him justly famous, inspired our own goodness, and electrified the world. I confess, even as a non-Catholic, to considerable sadness at his passing, attached as I am to the image of an elderly and gentle man, battling illness and weakness, continuing to shower affection on the suffering masses.

In this sense, the pontificate of John Paul will forever be remembered as an outstanding success. His life and his example embodied religion's foremost premise: that leading a G-dly life makes one into a G-dly individual, that a life of faith transforms its practitioner into an exemplar of compassion. The exemplary love that the pope came to represent was in itself a healing of sorts for those who looked at the history of the Catholic Church and wondered whether hypocrisy was at its core. The pope brought a luster and a majesty to his church seldom seen in a man of world-religious stature, and in this sense may even be considered Christendom's greatest pope because of the long ministry of love that he practiced. For this reason, all who call themselves religious owe John Paul II a debt of gratitude for the respectability he brought to all who believe in G-d.


Nevertheless, John Paul II's legacy as a world leader is decidedly mixed. Although he rose to the challenge of defeating communism early in his pontificate, he failed to condemn the threat of terrorism at the end of his pontificate. As the Solidarity movement in Poland began to pick up steam in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the world waited with apprehension for the inevitable Russian invasion to quash the grass-roots pro-democracy movement. At that time, John Paul II, still a very new pope, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Soviet Communist Party saying that he would resign the papacy to join Solidarity's front lines if Russian tanks entered his homeland. With that letter, he helped to save Poland, and he is justly commended for playing an integral role in the collapse of communism.

Yet 20 years later, as George Bush prepared the world for an invasion of Iraq to rid that country of Saddam Hussein, a brutal tyrant who had already slaughtered and gassed more than a million of his own people, the pope saw fit not only to oppose the war, but to summon Tariq Azziz, Saddam's diplomatic puppet, place his holy hands on Azziz's head, and say, "G-d bless Iraq." That an American politician could have seen Saddam's evil and scoffed at world censure in order to topple a barbarous dictator, while the world's foremost religious authority was gripped by an inexplicable moral blindness, shall forever remain a stain on the legacy of an otherwise great man.

The pope topped this bizarre spectacle in 2004 with his jaw-dropping comments on the occasion of the death of Yasir Arafat: "At this hour of sadness at the passing of President Yasir Arafat, His Holiness Pope John Paul is particularly close to the deceased's family, the Authorities and the Palestinian People. While entrusting his soul into the hands of the Almighty and Merciful God, the Holy Father prays to the Prince of Peace that the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land." In a second statement, the papal spokesman, Joachim Navarro Valls, said that Arafat was "a leader of great charisma who loved his people and sought to lead them towards national independence. May God welcome in His mercy the soul of the illustrious deceased and give peace to the Holy Land."

That the world's foremost spiritual shepherd could describe himself as being close Arafat's family, rather than the thousands of murdered men, women, and children who were Arafat's victims, was an astonishing act of sacrilege. That the most influential religious figure alive could describe the death of a terrorist as "an hour of sadness" and call a mass-murderer an "illustrious" soul was downright frightening. That the Vicar of Christ on earth could have said of a man who stole billions from his impoverished and desperate nation that he "loved his people" is an affront to everything Jesus stood for, which was primarily a dedication to the oppressed, the poor, and the persecuted.

Likewise, the pope never once used his considerable authority to condemn Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network, and the many other terrorist organizations that have made the planet so dangerous to inhabit. To be sure, after 9/11 he condemned the attacks as a "dark day in the history of humanity" and spoke in general terms of "forces of darkness" that had committed the atrocity. But he consistently refused to identify those forces, and without specifics, the condemnation had a hollow ring. The pope's consistent refusal to speak out against Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations was reminiscent of his predecessor Pius XII's refusal to ever once condemn the Nazis by name during the Second World War.

Likewise, when at a major international conference in Milan in September 2004, two prominent Vatican officials acknowledged the need for a military campaign to eliminate terrorism, the pope refused to endorse a military response.

He called for "firm action" against terrorism, but argued that war was the wrong approach to combating terror. Saying that "peace is always possible" even in an age of terror, the pope said that decisive action against terrorism should not take the form of a military campaign. "Violence begets violence," he said. "War must always be considered a defeat: a defeat of reason and of humanity." He further urged international leaders "not to give in to the logic of violence, vendetta, and hatred, but rather to persevere in dialogue." Of course, the idea of having a dialogue with Osama bin Laden or Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi would strike most informed people as useless at best, and immoral at worst.

How can we understand such actions and such comments coming from a man who I do not question for a moment was devoted with all his heart to the human family? How could such a genuinely pious man have unwitting allied himself with such unspeakable evil? And how could a leader of such incredible love have shown such callous indifference to victims of torture and murder by blessing and praising their murderers?

The great failing of John Paul II's life was that he loved too much. Like a parent who cannot see the failings of a child, he refused to accept that real evil lurks in the heart of men. John Paul II so loved G-d's children that he could not see that there were those whose actions had erased the image of G-d from their own countenance and forever severed them from connection to the compassionate Creator.

John Paul II loved the innocent but he never hated the wicked. He loved justice, but he all too seldomly condemned injustice. He fought for the poor and the oppressed, but he would not fight their oppressors. Declaring in word and deed that hatred of any sort was an unG-dly emotion that dare not be given sanctuary in the human heart, John Paul II never summoned the faithful to have contempt for the wicked, but instead extended them the considerable softness of his gentle touch when in reality a strong hand is what was most needed. The result of such misguided affection is that as he departs this world, he leaves behind a planet where it is American soldiers, fighting and dying for democracy around the globe, that are doing more to create a G-dly habitat on earth than John Paul II's priests and pastors.

Many point out that the pope was merely being consistent, that he himself met with his attempted assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, and forgave him for shooting him. But while an individual has a right to forgive someone who has wronged him, he has no such right when the offense has been committed against someone else. The pope overstepped the bounds of moral propriety when he forgave or embraced Arafat, despite the fact that other people's loved ones were blown up by Palestinian suicide bombs.


As a Jew, I shall forever remain indebted to John Paul II for the respect and affection he extended to the Jewish people. The pope twice visited the synagogue in Rome, diplomatically recognized and visited the State of Israel, wrote movingly of the wonders of Judaism in his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," and met tirelessly with Jewish leaders through the long years of his reign.

But as an American, I am saddened that as many nations joined in a chorus of condemnation of the American people for removing the Taliban in Afghanistan and establishing a democracy in Iraq, the Pope did not remind them that the real enemy is not those who fight evil, but those who soil G-d's green earth by drenching it in the blood of innocents.

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